Barcelos is a city of textile factories. It’s also the place Carla Pontes calls home. In a time when new generations are reinventing the Portuguese industry, the fashion designer gives her creative contribution to the growth of the company founded by her parents in 1989.
At Exporgal, the creations of her homonymous brand are emerging side by side with many other Portuguese and international labels. This industrial unit, specialising in circular knitting, is being requested more and more for its strong emphasis on detail and the excellent quality of every design it produces.
What’s your first memory when it comes to fashion?
My parents own a textile company, so I grew up watching pieces being made, being brought to life. I was still very young when I started designing, and I would ask my mother to make the clothes I imagined in my head. I think I have always had that interest. When the factory closed for the day, I would go to the samples section and cut little pieces of scrap and experiment on the machines, which has developed the strong connection I have with the materials from very early on. I recall a time when I wanted to become a fashion designer, long before even knowing what that was. But it was only much later on, when I began to understand the idea of designing and building from the ground up that I began to develop a real interest for design.
Does that mean that you always knew that you would end up working in fashion design?
I always knew that I wanted to work in a creative field, something related to design and project development. Fashion came afterwards. I first studied Equipment Design at ESAD in Porto. The thing that interested me the most was the idea of developing a project, designing a product. It was only later, when I realised that every time I had creative liberty I would choose textile materials and fabrics to work with instead of wood or plastic, that I got interested in moving from Equipment Design to Fashion Design.
Even though you grew up close to factory work, did you ever have anything made professionally in the fashion business? How did that transition happen?
After finishing my university degree, and understanding my relationship with these materials, I soon realised that I didn’t want to work in Equipment Design. I wanted to explore the fashion business. At the time, I chose to keep studying at Modatex (formerly Citex), because I knew they had a very strong practical focus, which really interested me. I didn’t really want to get stuck with developing a project, I wanted to learn the whole process, from manufacturing and modelling all the way to the final product. In my last year, I had the chance to do an internship with Nuno Baltazar, a renowned Portuguese fashion designer. During that time, I also started developing my project for Portugal Fashion’s Bloom ‘young designers’ contest, and I got selected. My first fashion show was in March 2012.
Do you think that the fact you can count on the support of your parents’ company had a big influence on the evolution of your career?
I can’t disagree with that. Undoubtedly, I was able to create my own brand because I have this place where I can produce and make the collections. It makes it easier for me to be able to design a pattern and follow it while it’s being produced on the machine, and be able to change it instantly and make it differently until it works. After I have the finalised material I can skip to the garment’s manufacturing. This opportunity of designing whilst being very close to the manufacture is part of my work process. The fact that I’m aware of the industry limitations allows me to explore other possibilities, but also brings me back to reality.
After finishing the Modatex classes, you kept working on Nuno Baltazar’s atelier and presenting your collections on the Bloom’s platform of Portugal Fashion. When did you decide to step forward and develop your brand?
During the first two years of Bloom, I worked with Nuno Baltazar and we made the presentations alongside one another. As I had the possibility of using the factory, I would use the weekends to develop and produce the collections, and it was that which made it possible in the beginning. That being said, a little later on I started to realise that I had to look at my work in a different way, trying to develop the clothes with the intention of commercialising them and effectively create my own brand, so that’s when I went back to Barcelos. The brand is evolving but it isn’t profitable enough yet for me to commit to it alone. That’s why I’ve started working at my parents’ company, where I currently support pattern development, monitor collection development in the samples section and do other work related to project development in the fashion design field.
Apart from the functions that you perform, what other services can we find at Exporgal?
Exporgal is a factory specialising in circular knitting. We can offer finished knits, but the fact that we have a vertical structure allows us to provide a service that goes from the development of the knit, the cut, the manufacture and the packaging, right down to the final product. We have a few Portuguese clients and also develop a few small projects like my own, but we mainly work with exports.
Why do those clients choose your factory to develop their parts?
Mainly, because they are able to develop their own material and have access to that exclusively. Secondly, because we are very careful with the manufacturing, and we keep a very close eye on every detail. The truth is that textile production goes through a lot of processes which are very detailed and depend on the human hand. We try to be as thorough as possible in these processes thus assuring good quality control that allows us to always deliver a well-made product.
In your opinion, is that quality you’re talking about a characteristic that spreads to the entire national production?
Quality production is, without any doubt, a strong mark of the Portuguese industry. The growth of requests by international clients, that keep coming back to Portugal to manufacture their products, makes that obvious. In the past there was a big rise of fast fashion products. Since Portugal couldn’t compete with such low prices, clients outsourced the production to Asian manufacturers. Now they’re coming back because they are beginning to realise that the consumer is more demanding and wants to acquire products of greater quality, that last longer, even if it means paying a bit more money.
Besides being a reference in production, do you think Portugal is starting to assert itself as a country of creativity?
Until recently, Portugal was known as a country of production, as there were no brands recognised abroad. Now, we are starting to see up and coming designers that produce their collections in Portugal who are very proud of that origin. The international client increasingly seeks our country not only for production but for design and development of pieces as well. A lot of factories have begun to focus on the talent of new creative generations and the creation of private brands, some of them very successful!
I think it is safe to say that you are an example of this new wave of Portuguese creativity. What sets your brand apart?
It has a lot to do with the things that I have done, like the fact that I’ve studied Product Design and thus look at a fashion object in a very three-dimensional way. When I design my pieces, I don’t think only of their front and back as usually happens in Fashion Design, in which the seams end up staying on the sides. I often tend to change or remove the seams from their traditional location and try to make a solid mould, like packaging over the body. I think that’s one of the main characteristics of my work, one that creates a different aesthetic and also brings a feeling of comfort to the garment. Since I work with knitted fabric, a material with its own unique elasticity, I’m able to explore the creations on a very tactile level. The pieces stand out for their unique texture and feel.
In the last two editions of Portugal Fashion, you left Bloom for the main catwalk. What inspired you to create the Spring-Summer 2017 collection “Cloud”?
“Cloud” is inspired by a seaside environment, in the middle of the sand dunes, with clouds and the horizon as a background. I’ve developed two patterns in cotton jacquard for this collection. One, represents the waves of the ocean and the sand. The other, a bit more abstract, represents the clouds. The prevalent colours are the blue and pink sky, which one can see only during the twilight. “Cloud”, these days, also means freely accessing files and archives and in doing so my desire to bring back shapes and volumes that I have used in previous collections. The more fluid cuts come from the simplicity and purity of creating the garment with a single seam.
Which Portuguese brands serve as a reference to you?
I really admire Luís Buchinho’s career, as I think he has the strongest brand of all the Portuguese designers. When it comes to aesthetics and development, I really like Alexandra Moura’s work. Estelita Mendonça’s too, in a more masculine aesthetic. Also, Hugo Costa and the entire generation that went through the Bloom platform, each one with its own language and identity. It’s important to have room for diversity in fashion, because every one of us identifies themselves with their own kind of aesthetics.
What’s next for your brand?
I hope that the brand continues to develop and evolve to a point where it becomes sustainable. At the moment, it’s already firmly set in Portugal, but the goal is to reach international markets. For now, my collections can be bought in concept stores such as Scar ID, The Feeting Room, Daily Day or The, but they will soon be available worldwide in our online shop.